« American Masters: Raise Your Voices. | Main | Chorus Takes the Honors »

June 24, 2005

Choral music gets a Taiwanese twist

Taipei Times (Taiwan):

The plum rains have come and gone and June's warmth has coaxed the last stubborn buds into full bloom. This weekend the Formosa Singers (福爾摩沙合唱團) will sing nature's praises with their concert Flower Songs (花之歌).

The Formosa Singers, a mixed choir of about 40 members, was remodeled from the Taipei Philharmonic Madrigal Choir in 1995 by conductor Julian Su (蘇慶俊) and is dedicated to "expressing in song the essence of Taiwan." This includes performing a variety of Hokkien, Hakka and Aboriginal folk songs as well as the work of prominent Taiwanese composers such as Hsiao Tyzen (蕭泰然) and Cheng Chih-ren (鄭智仁).

Su, one of Taiwan's top choral conductors, has over 20 years of conducting experience under his belt. After graduating from the Cultural University in 1981 with a major in cello performance, Su's interest soon shifted to choral music. During the years from 1984 to 1991 he took turns conducting the Tamkang Chorus, Hwakang Chorus, the Taipei Philharmonic Chorus, and a group of his own, the Taipei Philharmonic Madrigal Choir (1985).

In 1992 Su traveled to New Jersey to attend Westminster Choir College at Rider University. There he studied with famous choral conductor Joseph Flummerfelt. During his final recital for his master's degree, Su conducted a choir singing Taiwanese folk songs that he arranged. For Su, bringing the songs of Taiwan to the stage is not just about work or interest, it's about identity. He sees it as his duty to prevent the songs beloved by his generation from disappearing.

"In the past, this music was suppressed," Su said. "Perhaps in the future it could disappear." Under Martial Law, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) suppressed native Taiwanese culture and language and non-Mandarin folk songs were banned from the airwaves.

Su said that if the Formosa Singers were not promoting Taiwanese folk songs now, "it will be much more difficult to do in the future. We are the right generation to connect the past to the future." Not everyone recognizes the importance of singing the old songs, Su said. "Many people think this work is stupid because they do not identify with it." The most fulfilling moments for Su are when the music changes those people's minds.

In recent years Formosa Singers has toured in Japan and has made two trips to the US, where a large portion of their audience was Taiwanese immigrants. The reaction among second-generation Taiwanese-Americans who attended the concerts was especially rewarding, Su said. "They originally didn't identify with the songs because the arrangements they had heard were old and weren't done very well. They didn't realize the songs could sound so good, until they heard the Formosa Singers," Su said. What made the difference was the creative and skillful arranging of the tunes by Su and by the group's accompanist Tsai Yu-shan (蔡昱姍).

The folk origins of Formosa Singers' music don't immediately pop out to the ear. The old familiar tunes have become pollished choral pieces with rich four-part harmonies and diverse melodies. Much of the group's repertoire, if it were translated into Latin, would sound much like music you would hear at a European-style Easter concert. On a closer listening, the folk elements can be identified, woven subtly into the harmonies. The most delightful thing about listening to Formosa Singers is the seamless blend of distinctly Chinese melodies with the traditional sound of a Western-style choir.

The group has been honored a number of times with nominations for Golden Melody Awards. Their album Stars Over the Sky (天頂的星), based on the works of Cheng, won the award for Best Lyrics and for Best Performance by a Group at the 2002 Awards. Last year, Hsiao's cantata The Prodigal Son (浪子), premiered by Formosa Singers, won the Golden Melody Award for Best Composer. This year, the group's latest album, A Walk Through Our Collective Memories (走過集體的記憶) was nominated for Best Performance.

Su's interest extends beyond the songs of Taiwan to include folk songs from around the world as well as well as some fresh, modern composers. This weekend's lineup will begin with three Latin pieces by Eastern European composers Damijan Mocnik, Vytautas Miskinis and Gyorgy Orban. Next is the inspiration for the concert's theme, Three Flower Songs, by US composer Eric Whitacre. Su chose Whitacre because he was impressed by the composer's ability to create a modern yet pleasing sound.

"The choral scene in America has recently become closed off and has been dominated by Northern European composers," Su said, "but Whitacre is creating music that is popular all over the world." Whitacre is famous for his emotionally intense and electrifying choral compositions. He composed the a cappella set Three Flower Songs during his formative years at the University of Nevada and dedicated it to his teacher David Weller, who introduced Whitacre to choral music.

Most of the other songs on the lineup were chosen for dealing with the theme of flowers, so as to complement the Whitacre set. Some notable inclusions include two Japanese folk songs arranged by choral conductor Ko Matsushita, who flew to Taiwan to guest conduct the Formosa Singers for a concert in May of last year, as well as several Hokkien and Hakka folk songs arranged by Tsai. In August, the Formosa Singers will be taking a selection from this weekend's concert to compete in the Takarazuka International Chamber Chorus Contest in Japan.

Posted by acapnews at June 24, 2005 10:40 PM